By Darlene Donloe
The story of Belle hits select theaters on May 2. It’s an engaging, dramatic, emotional, caustic and inspirational true story about Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the illegitimate daughter of Capt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an African slave.
The story is set in 1769. When Capt. Lindsay returns to his Royal Navy military duties and thus is forced to leave Belle in the care of her aristocratic great-uncle Lord Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson) and his wife (Emily Watson), with the mandate they treat her with the same respect and full rights as any other member of the family. Lindsay, who loves his daughter and has embraced her without shame, pleads with his relatives to look after her. Lord Mansfield and his wife are both ill-prepared, but nonetheless duty-bound to take Belle in as a member of their family.
Although her relatives grudgingly accept her as a member of the family, they bestow upon her a strict, demanding kind of love. While they accept her as a part of the family, Belle, whom they call Dido, is not allowed to dine with her own relations when they are entertaining guests. She may, however, join the guests after dinner. The looks on their faces when they see her showcases their indignation. Not realizes she was ‘so dark’, whispers begin Lord Mansfield’s “mulatto” grand-niece.
Belle's lineage affords her certain privileges, yet her status prevents her from the traditions of noble social standing. She has all the social graces, breeding and education as any of her peers, yet Belle, because she is black is still not fully accepted by all.
While her cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), who does not have an inheritance - longs for a suitable marriage, Belle, who receives a hefty inheritance after her father’s death, is left on the sidelines wondering if she will ever find love. After meeting an idealistic young vicar's son bent on changing society, he and Belle implore Lord Chief Justice Mansfield to take a stand and end slavery in England.
The B-story is the Zong massacre of 1781, a notorious incident in which 142 disease-ridden Africans were hurled from a slave ship and drowned so that the owners might claim insurance for their damaged “cargo.”
Lord Mansfield must hear the legal case, but, of course, is slightly torn because his decision will have far-reaching implications for the slave trade and the ongoing treatment of blacks as disposable goods rather than as human beings.
A beautifully shot film by Director Amma Asante, Belle, a beautiful period piece successfully manages to mix romance, the abolition of slavery, classism, sexism and racism.
Belle is a strong and proud woman. She resists settling even when it appears her life and social status will rise if she marries into a white family. When the brother of her suitor continues to spew venom about her black lineage, Belle realizes she will not be welcomed openly into the family.
Belle is a rare gem of a film about a rare member of 18th-century high society, a woman of mixed English and African ancestry and how she did her part to push the empire one step closer to abolition.
Great performances throughout, especially by a stunning Mbatha-Raw who, ironically delivers a raw presentation.
This is one of the best films this year. A must see!
Belle, directed by Amma Asante and written by Misan Sagay, stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sarah Gadon, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Matthew Goode, Sam Reid, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton, James Norton, Tom Felton and Lauren Julien-Box.
Belle (Fox Searchlight) is Rated PG; Running time: 1 hr. 45 min.
On the DONLOE SCALE: D (don’t bother), O (oh, no), N (needs work), L (likeable), O (OK) and E (excellent), Belle gets an E (excellent).